Joshua Tehee

Fresno’s growing nerd culture on full display at Cosplay prom

A couple show off their costumes at last weekend’s Cosplay Nerd Prom at Fulton 55.
A couple show off their costumes at last weekend’s Cosplay Nerd Prom at Fulton 55. Special to The Bee

I’m hanging out in the strip of fenced sidewalk that serves as the smoking section at Fulton 55, chatting it up with Harley Quinn and The Joker and a guy who might be Superman, or technically Clark Kent with the thick black-framed glasses (sans lenses) and vintage Superman T-shirt showing through his partially unbuttoned collared shirt. There’s no cape in sight.

I’m on the job at the Cosplay Nerd Prom, here to observe and learn more about the rising popularity of nerd culture. I left my costume at home.

“I grew up thinking nerds were not cool,” says Gabrielle Bruno, the aforementioned Harley Quinn, dressed a la the upcoming “Suicide Squad” movie. She’s wearing a crop-top and fishnets, colored hair (it might be a wig) and thigh-high boots. Hidden among the fake tattoos she applied as part of the costume is a real one. It’s an homage to “The Lord of the Rings,” because she’s a nerd and really into the books.

It wasn’t until Bruno got a job with the local company Heroes Alliance and started dressing up for movie openings at Maya Cinemas that she realized people’s perceptions have changed.

“It was like, OK, nerds are cool now,” Bruno says.

The popularity of nerd culture is apparent inside the club, which is packed with cosplayers – people who dress up as a character from a movie, book or video game.

A pair of Jokers (capital J, as in the Batman villain) head up the stairs, followed by Slave Leia, holding hands with Kylo Ren, in a scene that is seriously Oedipal. There’s a guy dressed as Pikachu from Pokémon and another in an FBI field jacket and aviator glasses in an homage to Andy Dwyer’s alter-ego Burt Macklin. It’s an obscure reference, unless you’re a fan of the TV show “Parks and Recreation.” It may be the most meta costume of the night.

On the dance floor, Jocelyn Harmony – dressed as the Batman villain Penguin – calls two-minute warning on the first round of nerd speed dating, after prompting the prospective couples with what could be a deal breaker of a question.

“Marvel or DC?” Harmony asks. “Where do your loyalties lie? This is how you start fights.”

This is the second “nerd” themed night this year from Art Silva’s promotions team, The Artourage. Silva considers himself a nerd. He does have a massive collection of video games. As a promoter, this is the kind of event he loves to do, more than the concerts for which he’s known. He always incorporates some kind of gaming and costuming into his events, but until recently, though, he wasn’t sure there was a market for anything more.

“Fresno is weird about unknown stuff,” Silva says.

Of course, this isn’t really unknown stuff anymore.

In many ways, nerd culture is becoming pop culture. It is prominently featured on the mega-popular “The Big Bang Theory” and reality TV shows like “Heroes of Cosplay.” Disney – the largest purveyor of pop culture ever – now controls the Star Wars and Marvel universes.

Comic book and cosplay conventions are now sellout events, same as the big music festivals.

“Everybody wants to do their own con,” says Harmony, when I catch up with her later in the night.

In Fresno, that includes Zapp Con, which celebrates its third year in October, and the Ani-Me POP Summit, which happens at the Fresno Fairgrounds next weekend, which despite its name is actually a convention dedicated to Japanese and Korean pop-culture (or J Pop and K Pop, respectively) and will feature music, fashion, film, dance, art, games, interactive workshops, panels, anime, movies and an import car show. Thousands are expect to attend.

It’s ironic, because part of what ties the nerd cultures together is a feeling of being apart from the mainstream, Harmony says.

“Every single person here at some point in their lives has felt shut out or pushed aside,” she says.

The rise of social media (especially Instagram) has allowed them to connect and be accepted in a community of like-minded people. It’s an amazing support system, Harmony says.

In the real world, she credits places like Crazy Squirrel Game store for offering similar support – and breaking down the stigma of the types of people into nerdy stuff. The people who shop (and play) at Crazy Squirrel run contrary to the typical portrayal of nerds. These are professionals – lawyers and doctors. These are guys with wives and families, Harmony says.

The truth, of course, is that being a nerd isn’t about the games, or comics or costume – even if the costumes are really cool. It’s about having a passion.

And maybe that passion borders on obsession, but that’s OK because it’s your thing. That feeling is universal, Harmony says.

“We all have that thing we nerd out about,” she says. “Everyone is a nerd.”

Joshua Tehee: 559-441-6479, @joshuatehee